The Rutles: All You Need Is Cash (review)

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Meet the Rutles

Years before anyone had ever heard of Spinal Tap, there were the Rutles. Eric Idle got by with a little help from his Monty Python and Saturday Night Live pals to create this mockumentary, originally a 1978 NBC-TV special exec-produced by Lorne Michael, part satire of and part tribute to the Beatles.

With the same kind of visual and verbal anarchy that characterized Monty Python’s Flying Circus, All You Need Is Cash — written by Eric Idle and directed by Idle and Gary Weis — documents the rise and fall of “the Prefab Four, who made the 60s what they are today.” The Rutles, of course, were formed by Liverpool lads Dirk McQuickley (Eric Idle: 102 Dalmatians, South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut) and Ron Nasty (Neil Innes). Guitarists and vocalists both, they soon added drummer Barry Wom (John Halsey) and bass player Stig O’Hara (Ricky Fataar), “the quiet one… of no fixed hairstyle.” From the rat-infested clubs of Hamburg, where they got their start, “far from home, and far from talented”; through their groundbreaking hit albums including 1964’s A Hard Day’s Rut (also a motion picture), 1967’s Sgt. Rutter’s Only Darts Club Band (“a millstone in pop music history” — yes, millstone) and 1968’s Tragical History Tour; to the women who eventually broke up the group, Cash covers it all. From the mysterious fifth Rutle to the real secret to their success to the frenzy of Rutlemania, no detail is missed.
The coolest thing about All You Need Is Cash are the songs, all written by Innes, a composer and Monty Python regular player. With titles like “Hold My Hand,” “With a Girl Like You,” and “Ouch!,” they aren’t quite parodies of Beatles tunes, but they are exactly the same kind of fluffy boy-loves-girl pop bubble gum that you can’t help but sing along with. The melodies and lyrics hover on the edge of the familiar, but, unlike Spinal Tap’s music, with its clueless, malaprop lyrics, the Rutles songs are only funny only if you’re already acquainted with the Beatles. Of course, everyone is acquainted with the Beatles, but if you weren’t — like you’d spent the last 40 years in a coma, for instance — you wouldn’t notice anything amiss about the Rutles’ music.

A lot of love of the Fab Four obviously went into All You Need Is Cash, but no love is lost between documentary filmmakers and the wags responsible for this controlled mayhem. “We went to New Orleans to find out just how expensive it is to make these documentaries,” the unnamed narrator (also Idle) tell us, launching into an exploration of the bluesy roots of the Rutles that sends up music experts and critics as well as the obsessive need of rock chroniclers to impart a sense a unnecessary legitimacy to their subject by grounding it — by any means required — in the past. And while an affection for the Beatles’ music is clear, Idle and Weis and their cast can’t help but look askance at the bizarre hobbies of rock stars (including substance addiction) that create fads, and the increasing remove from reality superfame brings and the seeds of self-destruction it sows.

Bill Murray and Michael Palin, George Harrison and Bianca Jagger, John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd and Gilda Radner… all are in on the fun here. Mick Jagger and Paul Simon even appear as themselves, talking reverently about the famous Rutle influence on music in general and on their own work. If you’ve never heard of the Rutles, you’ll be astounded to discover all they gave to the world of entertainment… and the realm of snarky, witty comedy.

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